Edit Blog Post
Published: December 13th 2015
Just to confirm that almost everywhere on the planet is worth visiting and almost everyone on it is actually really nice: here is Somalia. Actually it's the self-declared but internationally unrecognised independent Republic of Somaliland which forms about a third of Somalia. Democratic elections since the 90s, their own president, currency, flag, passports and even embassies abroad. Despite being peaceful and with a growing economy no countries recognise their independence because they follow the lead of the African Union who have thrown so much effort and money at supporting the government in Mogadishu who vehemently oppose Somaliland independence. It's safe enough that moneychangers have their cash piled up on the street, there's incredible 8000 year old rock art that would be UNESCO recognised if Somaliland actually existed, the beautiful desert is full of wildlife, the beach is pirate-free, and it's home to delicious spiced camel milk tea which is just the job for soothing your mouth after a khat
session (no effect except didn't sleep for 3 days) which left me feeling more like I'd been chewing hedgehogs rather than leaves.
Why did I find myself there? After another month of work back in Ethiopia (second
stint of fieldwork for my PhD) I decided I’d earnt a bit of a holiday before I returned to the UK. Should I visit a few of Ethiopia’s nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites – the reasons I had always wanted to visit Ethiopia? Should I visit one of Ethiopia’s spectacular neighbours, such as Kenya or Uganda? Nah, I’ll go to Somalia. I am often equally baffled by my travel decisions.
Actually, I couldn’t see more of Ethiopia because my visa was about to run out: I deliberately got the one-month rather than 3-month visa at the airport in Addis Ababa to prevent me from working all day every day from getting off the plane to getting back on. Been to Kenya and Uganda, border is closed to Eritrea, Sudan visa takes months, South Sudan is a bit civil warry, so Somalia was left (for the geographically astute, see the next blog for Djibouti).
I did a lot of research before going to convince myself it wasn’t excessively sketchy. There are many travel blogs out there, on this website and others, as well as odd documentaries and even a short section
Money changers in Hargeisa
Not a lot of street crime then.
of Ethiopia’s Lonely Planet, dedicated to Somaliland. They are almost all positive with tales of welcoming people, interesting sights, and the feeling of being a pioneering traveller. However, the Foreign Office still “advises against all travel”, though this means you do save money on travel insurance because it wouldn’t be valid anyway. If you are thinking of going, then I recommend you do the same as I did; read everything there is to read before you make the decision.
How to do it? Easy. The Somaliland Consulate is in Bole, Addis Ababa; take $70 and a passport photo, fill in the form, sit around for an hour or so in the comfortable house, get your passport back with the visa inside and walk 20-minutes to the airport. Fly to Dire Dawa, taxi to the bus station, minibus to Harar. Day or two there. Bus to Jijiga, stopping frequently for unknown and very aggressive arguments involving lots of people on the bus, the driver, and passers-by (I learnt that Somali is a very aggressive sounding language but in reality they were probably just chatting about the weather or the price of goats). In the chaotic bus
yard find the packed and extremely knackered bus to Wajaale. Travel increasingly slowly as more and more khat
is consumed by all on the bus (the driver got through the most as he was offered bunches by all passengers while he peered with his glazed eyes through the tiny bit of windscreen not shattered nor obscured by the vivid pink fur dangling from the ceiling). Off the bus at Wajaale which sits on the border, lots of people will offer you a lift to Hargeisa in shared taxis – choose one of them. Get led through a busy wasteland of plastic rubbish and trucks to a shared taxi. Realise you have just crossed the border illegally so sneak back into Ethiopia to get an exit stamp from the immigration/emigration office which is on the main road. Walk 50 m to the Somaliland office, talk about football while you get your entry stamp. Back to the shared taxi. Sit on it not moving for an hour or so till there are four people sat across the front seats, four in the back, and four more on the third row of seats. Set off at ridiculous speed on a decent road through
No pirates in sight (I think)
the desert stopping at least ten or fifteen times at police or army roadblocks while getting fed by all the Somali women in the taxi – one of whom was born and raised in Manchester – who will shout at the police/army when they ask to see your passport. Arrive in Hargeisa in the afternoon. Oriental Hotel is a decent spot.
What to do there? Well, there’s not much really. The only plan I had was to go to Berbera on the coast stopping at Las Geel (the prehistoric rock art) on the way. It’s not a cheap trip because you cannot travel on public transport but must hire a taxi and an armed guard in order to leave Hargeisa. It’s a two day trip so you must pay for their food and accommodation as well. It costs $250. I hoped I could share the costs with other tourists. Shame there aren’t any. I waited a day and half in Hargeisa hoping some might turn up but I never actually saw one during the whole five days I was there. (The reason for the armed guard is because the government know that should something happen
to a foreigner it would hamper their drive for independence so you are excessively protected as a tourist. There are blogs out there by tourists who have hired vehicles or been offered lifts only to be turned back at the frequent road blocks for not having a guard.)
During that day and a half in Hargeisa I wandered about, not easy on the very busy sand and plastic litter filled streets where shops spill across the pavement. I got stopped often by people asking, in impeccable English, what the hell I was doing there. I always got into conversation when stopping in cafes and restaurants where we moved on to the standard second question of what I thought of Somaliland. Lots of the blogs I’d read stated you’ll be asked why Somaliland isn’t recognised by your country and a few suggested not telling people you are British because they think it’s the UK’s fault. I never experienced any of that. In fact, a lot of people I met were British-Somali and were back there visiting relatives. I also read (from most of the blogs) that people will get aggressive if you take photos in Hargeisa,
even just of street scenes; in case it’s true I just didn’t really take any.
I found myself returning to the nice courtyard of the Oriental Hotel frequently for a pot of the aforementioned Somali tea and to read some book. Cafes out and about were so bustling with people rushing in and out, iphones flashing, quick bursts of conversations, that it wasn’t at all relaxing. After about half an hour back at the hotel I would think to myself what was I doing in a nice sheltered courtyard when I should be out experiencing Somaliland so I would set off into the streets again and go through the same cycle.
The taxi left pretty early after stopping to pick up khat
and other supplies for which the driver and armed guard were most apologetic. However, I really enjoyed being part of and getting a glimpse of normal Somaliland life. The drive through the desert was really beautiful. I like deserts, and this one, despite having no rolling sand dunes, was lovely. Rocky, sandy scrub, little mountains with odd rock formations, and surprisingly, given that it hadn’t rained all year
I went into Starbucks and asked for a pumpkin spiced skinny caramel creme frappuccino and they told me to go away because it was a tyre repair shop.
and appeared quite lifeless, there was some wildlife. Most of this was seen along the long winding track from the highway to Las Geel. We saw warthogs, long-necked gerenuk, little dik-diks, and a few tortoises. There were a few nomad’s tents around though apparently the drought means most have left for the towns.
Las Geel costs $25 which is definitely worth it because the place always has two guards and according to the visitor book I was the first person there in a week. Before me in the book were two American girls, then some Brazilians, French, Germans, so tourists do come here then. The rock art is incredible when you consider how old it is and how well it has been preserved in the dry desert air. Though the drawings show it used to be wetter as there are hunting scenes of buffalo, zebras and giraffes, none of which have been found in these parts for thousands of years. The view is equally wonderful.
I found Berbera much more interesting than Hargeisa, it is certainly much more sedate. The old town is a quiet old port and I enjoyed
strolling about the rundown buildings, fishing jetties and mucky beach. Though it is very hot – a swim doesn’t help as the sea is no cooler. There is actually a kind of resort a bit out of town on the beach where I went for a swim but there was nobody staying there.
On my last day in Somaliland something happened for the first time in a year. It rained! Rather than being chuffed about it, Hargeisa came to a standstill as the sandy streets turned to mud. I saw it as a valid excuse to stay in, drink delicious tea and feast on the always huge plates of tasty meat and rice.
Was it worth going? I want to see the highlights of Ethiopia with someone else where as I probably wouldn’t feel comfortable bringing someone to Somaliland so while in Ethiopia on my own it made sense to come. There isn’t much to see, but it’s interesting just being there. Though it was quite an expensive few days. I think it’s one of those great trips in hindsight that people always want to hear about but at the
time I may have been a bit bored.
Conclusion: Go to Somaliland, with someone else with whom to share costs and downtime (perhaps not a loved one to stop you from constantly, and unnecessarily, looking over your shoulder), do what I did but in half the time.
Tot: 1.266s; Tpl: 0.022s; cc: 13; qc: 30; dbt: 0.0145s; 1; m:saturn w:www (184.108.40.206); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb